Discerning God's Will - Helping Our Neighbor

If there is one Commandment most of us feel we do pretty well with it is the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not kill.” We may have done a lot of things we are not proud of, but the numbers dwindle of those who have actually fatally shot, stabbed, or by some other means ended someone’s life.

So if we are looking to what God’s will is here, we may think it is as simple as “it is not his will for me to murder someone.” But it is so much more than that! And you get the sense of how much more when we read Luther’s explanation, “We are to fear and love God so that we do not hurt our neighbor in any way, but help him in all his physical needs.”

So where does Luther come up with all this explanation? I’m glad you asked! He comes up with it where he typically comes up with stuff. He comes up with these insights from the Scriptures. He would have had Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in mind, where in Matthew 5 Jesus declares that being angry with another, or giving insult to another is tantamount to breaking the Fifth Commandment. Luther would also have been aware of passages in James 2 and in 1 John 3 where the hearer is warned of the absence of love when we do not share food, clothing, and other goods needed for life with our neighbor in need. The absence of love is hate, and hate is at the root of murder.

So in our discernment of God’s will, toss out the crystal ball and other cryptic methods of discernment, and learn from the Fifth Commandment it is God’s will for me to help my neighbor is all his physical needs. As has been said and is worth repeating. Learning God’s will take a little effort, for it is taught in God’s Word. But doing God’s will is really difficult. It will require prayer and God’s mercy.

SINCE YOU ASKED...

How are we to under- stand the Easter Feast?

“Easter is to be understood as the crown of the whole year, the queen of feasts, and as such it lasts not for a day, not for a week, but for a week of weeks – a week not made up of seven days

but of seven weeks. So the Sundays of this season are called the Sundays of Easter. It is one extended feast. ... The Gospels for the Sundays of Easter present the themes of resurrection, ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit as aspects or stages of the Easter Mystery...”

(from the Manual on the Liturgy a companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship, publ. by Augsburg)

Discerning the Will of God - Parents and Other Authorities

With the Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother,” we move from what is sometimes called the First Table of the Law to the Second. That is, we move from commandments having to do directly with our Lord, to those that have to do with our neighbor.

Having two tables of the Law already indicates, as mentioned before, that God’s will has to do with loving and honoring our Lord and loving and serving our neighbor. I started this series by stating that knowing God’s will was not such a mysterious, hard to know, matter! Rather, it is doing God’s will that is difficult.

We have also already discussed the priority of the First Table, while at the same time indicating that the First Table leads into the Second. That is to say, we love and honor God also by loving and serving our neighbor.

In the Fourth Commandment loving and serving our neighbor starts with respect and obedience to God-delegated authorities. The highest such authority is that of father and mother. But God’s authority is reflected in many other offices that reflect parental authority. This is why Luther explains the meaning of the Fourth Commandment as, “We are to fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and others in authority, but respect, obey, love, and serve them.”

Rebellion is nothing new, but we live in an especially rebellious age when it comes to authorities. We see this in the disrespect shown elected officials, officers of the law, teachers, administrators, judges, and pastors. The Scriptures are clear, unless the authority commands something contrary to what God has commanded we are to obey. We are always to show respect. We are to pray for those who are over us.

So what is the will of God here? It is to honor and love God by showing respect, obedience, love, and service to our parents and other authorities.

Since You Asked…

What are we observing on “The Sunday of the Passion”?

The Sunday of the Passion mixes triumph and tragedy, the palms and the passion, observing Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem as well as looking ahead to his passion and death on the cross.

As the prelude to the Sunday of the Passion focuses on reading the Passion Narrative, the Procession with Palms provides an appropriate burst of joy which does not lose sight of the solemn goal of Jesus’ triumphal entry. (taken from the Lutheran Planning Calendar, publ. by Augsburg Fortress)

Discerning God's Will - Listening and Honoring

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“Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” The Third Commandment requires a bit of explanation. That is because it is the only one of the Ten that is kept differently and not according to the same sense it was for the Israelites. And that is because with the Advent of Christ Jesus we have a chance to enter into a rest that was only hinted at in the Books of Moses (cf. Col. 2:16; Heb. 4:9).

Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mat. 11:28-29). Set aside days and festivals that Israel observed do not carry the same obligatory weight for Christians.

Israel was given a couple of rationales for resting on the 7th day (Saturday) and keeping it holy. The first is as a reminder that God created the heavens and earth in 6 days, and then rested on the 7th day (cf. Gen 2:3; Ex. 20:11). And the second is for a reminder of God’s deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage (cf. Deu. 5:15).

Luther insightfully picks up on that which sanctifies, or makes something holy, and that is God’s Word. Jesus prayed to the Father, “Sanctify them in truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). And he also recognized the value of hearing God’s Word in community. The pattern of doing so at least once every 7 days was kept up by the Christian community, but as disciples were being expelled from the synagogue, Christians often gathered on the 1st day (Sunday).

“We are to fear and love God so that we do not neglect his Word and the preaching of it, but regard it as holy and gladly hear and learn it,” is Luther’s explanation. And accordingly, we know it is God’s will for our lives to listen and honor God’s Word!

Since You Asked…

Why is incense used in some churches?

The use of incense is not unique to Christianity or Judaism and is used in many of the world’s religions to enhance special times and places by sight and smell. In Christian worship incense is effectively used at the beginning of the Service of the Word and in preparing for receiving Holy Communion. The burning of incense is associated with the prayers of worship rising before God (cf. Psa 141:2; Rev 8:4). Good worship should engage all the human senses. In this connection it should be pointed out that the olfactory sense is perhaps the most sensitive of the five senses; it continues to function even during sleep. (Indebted to Aidan Kavanah in his “Elements of Rite”.)

Discerning the Will of God - The Lord's Name

Typically when we run into the Second Commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” we think about cleaning up our language, especially not using the Divine Name in a derogatory or cursing manner. But when we consider Luther’s explanation we receive a more full understanding.

“We are to fear and love God,” Luther begins his explanation! By the way, his explanation to each of the remaining commandments will use these words. These are the words that formed the explanation to the First Commandment! Luther’s explanations always make a tie to the First, and the most important, Commandment.

“We are to fear and love God so that we do not use his name superstitiously, or use it to curse, swear, lie, or deceive, but call on him in prayer, praise, and thanking.”

Note that with the latter half of the explanation, the part stated positively, that we learn what the will of God is for our lives. In the Second Command we learn that God wants us to call on him in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. When we do so we also honor the First Command, namely, we fear, love, and trust God above anything else – thus having no other gods.

Little wonder that any other use of his holy name is a violation, or breaking, of the commandment. A superstitious use for example neglects having God alone as our God, and looks instead to a good luck charm or a special spell. If we cloak a lie by swearing to God we are telling the truth, we use God’s good name to prop up a lie. If being known by his name, as in fact we are when we are called “Christians”, we act deceptively and drag his name through the mud.

Think of a woman who takes her husband’s name in marriage. She does so in vain, that is uselessly, if she is adulterous. But when she honors his name she shares in all that is her husband’s.

 

Since You Asked…

Why do we say in the Creeds that Jesus Christ “is seated at the right hand of the Father”? Does this mean that our Lord is far away from us?

This has little to do with Christ’s physical location. Instead it has to do with the authority he assumes. For a King to be seated on a throne is a symbolic gesture of his rule and authority. Heaven itself is a reality that transcends time and space. It is the unseen and timeless realm that underlies the visible and temporal world. We confess Christ to be seated at the right hand of the Father because we believe him to be the rightful King of the universe. Indeed, Jesus is Lord!

Discerning the Will of God - Part 4

The First Commandment reads, “You shall have no other gods.” It is worth noting that the words immediately preceding are: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” They are words of ownership and pure grace. And that is how God deals with us. He makes a decision to be the God of his wayward children, and he delivers us from the bondage our own waywardness has brought upon us! Then he tells us what he expects of us.

In the giving of this first command the Lord includes a little commentary which makes it clear that we are not to fashion idols and bow down to worship them. But as Luther picks up in his explanation to this command, idols and false gods do not always need to be carved or molten images that we shape as objects of worship. There are more subtle forms of idolatry.

Luther’s explanation reads, “We are to fear, love, and trust God above anything else.” There are many inanimate objects that we fear, love, and trust. We break this command every time we fear, love, and trust something more than God! That is idolatry. And the list is endless on what we might worship in the place of our Creator God. For worship involves fear, love, and trust.

The list of such idols includes wealth, popularity, intelligence, strength, ideologies, government, celebrities, and other so-called deities that have not been revealed to us in God’s Word and through his Son.

So the first thing we know about God’s will for our lives is that we are to love God with our whole being, acknowledge him as the only true God, and trust his Word. If we do this, all his other commands fall easily in place. When we don’t, we are making an idol in his place. We are acting as God! For when you boil it all down, idols are fashioned in sinful, rebellious human hearts.

Since You Asked…

What does the Pastor’s Stole signify? (the stole is the colored strip of cloth that loops around the back of the neck and hangs from both shoulders)

The stole represents a yoke such as would be used to link and employ an ox with a plow or cart. When a work animal is yoked to a task, that animal comes under the rule and guidance of its master. As Christians we are to be yoked to Christ (cf. Mt. 11:28-30). We are to fear, love, serve, and obey the Lord Jesus Christ. The Pastor’s stole is therefore not only a sign of ordination in the Lutheran Church, but it visibly reminds the whole congregation of our servant hood to Christ.

Discerning the Will of God - Part 3

It’s a pity that we don’t recite the Ten Commandments very often. Unlike the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer which are repeatedly recited, we don’t often rehearse the Ten Commandments. Consequently, most church goers would be hard pressed to remember all ten.

As you read this, consider pausing right here and test yourself to see how many you can recall. Don’t be embarrassed if you come up short. You are in good company. At the same time, see if you can remedy the situation.

Martin Luther would recite the Ten Commandments every morning! He believed it was a good way to be reminded of what God’s will is for our lives. And with the help of other Scriptures, he felt that one could never exhaust their meaning and implications for who God is, and what God expects of us.

So here is the Lutheran numbering of the Ten…

  1. You shall have no other gods.

  2. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.

  3. Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep in holy.

  4. Honor your father and your mother.

  5. You shall not kill (murder).

  6. You shall not commit adultery.

  7. You shall not steal.

  8. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

  9. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.

  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his cattle, or anything that is your neighbor’s.

It is worth noting that the first three commands have to do with our relationship to God, and the final seven have to do with our relationship to each other. This division is sometimes called the Two Tables of the Law.

Next week we will begin to consider Luther’s pithy explanations for each of the Commandments.

Since You Asked…

Why is the Triune Name of God repeated so frequently in our worship services?

The mystery of the Trinity is one of the most distinctive elements of our Christian Tradition. Christianity is not alone in claiming to be monotheistic (belief in one Supreme Being, one god). But Christianity holds that this One, True God has revealed himself to us as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Scripture teaches that God the Father has revealed himself through God the Son and in God the Spirit. Only the Son can be seen, and only through the Spirit are we enabled to believe in the Father and the Son. And so we often invoke the name of the Triune God in the mystery of our faith.

Discerning the Will of God? - Part 2

As I intimated at the end of my last address, it is easier to learn what God’s will is than to do it!

I wrote last time that the Ten Commandments are a foundational source for knowing God’s will. And with each commandment we learn not only what is forbidden to us, but we also learn what is valuable. For instance, in the First Commandment we are forbidden to worship and trust other gods. But what is valuable is the benefit of turning to and trusting the only true source of life and every blessing.

Take another example, in the Fifth Commandment we know that murder is forbidden. But the positive aspect to this commandment is the value of life, and in particular our physical well-being. So God’s will is for me to love my neighbor, and specifically according to this commandment to help him in all his physical needs – his need of food, drink, clothing, and so on.

It is interesting to note the relatively few times the words “will of God” are used in Scripture. In 1 Thessalonians 4 we learn it God’s will that we abstain from sexual immorality. In 1 Thessalonians 5 we learn it is God’s will that we continually pray and give thanks to God. In 1 Timothy 2 we learn our Lord desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

So again, with a little effort we can come to know what God’s will is. But doing it is another matter. It is another matter because in our fallen human nature we prefer to do our own will. And our own will is self-centered. I enjoy looking out for me, myself, and I more than anyone else. And in my own self-interest I am willing to trample right over anyone who gets in my way!

Little wonder our Lord Jesus taught us to pray “Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.” Without his help, we don’t stand a prayer!

But we have a prayer! Our Lord taught it and promised to hear it. That is some kind of help!

Since You Asked…

What is the meaning of “Lent”?

The English word “Lent” means “springtime”. Lent is the six-week period of spiritual discipline before Easter (40 days not counting Sundays). At an early period in the Church’s history baptisms might only be celebrated once a year at the Easter Vigil Service. Accordingly there was a period prior to this of introducing and training candidates for baptism. In time the training for baptismal candidates grew to a six week period, and this training involved fasting. The 40 days was, no doubt, modeled on the 40 days of our Lord Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness before his temptations by the devil. As the years passed the Lenten fast began to be applied, not only to the baptismal candidates, but to the church as a whole. Church members were encouraged to approach Easter in the same manner in which they had solemnly prepared for their baptisms. That is why the Season of Lent has finally developed as a time for fasting, study, prayer, acts of love, and humility.(with help from The Westminster Dictionary of Worship, edited by J.G. Davies, The Westminster Press.)

Discerning the Will of God?

A lot of attention is given in Pop American Christianity to discerning the will of God. This mostly comes from Evangelicals, but the sensibilities have crept into all denominations. You hear talk of an individual trying to discern the will of God for their life in such things as which school to attend, what vocation to choose, who to marry, and where to live.

Some individuals talk with a great deal of certainty in having discovered God’s will in some of these areas. They can speak of specific answers to prayer, of signs, or of orchestrated circumstances, and the like. Other individuals will confess to frustration in being less certain and lacking in direct and clear indications of what God wants them to do.

This piece will necessarily be too short to address this sense, often with urgency, of discerning God’s will for one’s life. And I do not want to entirely rule out the possibility that God can so direct. But I do want to say that I think the attempt at such discernment can be misplaced.

I believe that talk of “discernment” should be replaced with talk of “learning”. Largely, we are taught what God’s will is. The Psalmist intones, “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God” (Ps. 143:10). Especially in the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and in the Lord’s Prayer we learn what God’s will is, although we will spend a lifetime learning it well! We don’t have to be unclear about it. We can know “God’s Will” because he reveals it to us in Scripture! Our concern should rather be in doing his will instead of doing our own will. Little wonder we are taught to pray, “Thy will be done.”

Concerning decisions we make we are instructed to ask for wisdom (cf. James 1:5). We should make personal decisions with an eye to asking what best conforms to God’s will revealed in his word. Next week I will flesh out a few things we can know about God’s will.

Since You Asked…

What is the purpose of the Psalm Reading? And why do we often sing (chant) the Psalm?

“The appointed psalm is sung as a meditation on the First Lesson, a response to it, and a bridge to the Second Lesson. … Hearers of the lessons need a chance to assimilate the First Lesson before the Second Lesson begins. The required use of a psalm between the lessons provides for the restoration of psalm singing to its traditional place in the life of the church and gives the worshiper the opportunity to participate in the singing (or reading) of a portion of Scripture…” (from “Manual on the Liturgy” companion to the LBW, from Augsburg Pub.)

Chanting can be thought of as “exalted speech”. It sets the speech apart from regular speech and the slower cadence allows for reflection.

Proclaiming and Teaching Jesus as the Christ

At Gift of Grace Lutheran Church we have pledged ourselves to being faithful to the Scriptures as God’s Word. Accordingly we hold to the time-honored teachings of the Church based on Holy Writ. These teachings are reflected in the Ecumenical Creeds of the Early Church, namely the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds. We also believe that the Lutheran Confessions give faithful witness to the teachings of the Bible.

The Apostle Paul will encourage a young appointed elder by the name of Timothy to guard “the deposit entrusted” to him. (cf. 1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 1:14) This deposit is the Christian Faith. Paul will then encourage Timothy to pass this deposit on to faithful teachers who themselves will be able to pass it on to others. (2 Tim. 2:2)

Time-honored teachings! Dogma! There is tension here with modern sensibilities in our culture! Commercially we have been inundated with advertisements touting products that are “new and improved”. In entertainment we look for novelty and creativity. And with great scientific and technical advances we mistakenly regard earlier ages as unenlightened, superstitious, and dark.

Whether spoken or not, the underlying assumption of many unbelievers is that with our greater knowledge today, teachings put forth two thousand years ago have been outgrown.

Liberal Christianity can be understood as an attempt to force our modern-age “enlightened understanding” into the molds formed by earlier Christian teaching. Here inspiration gets reduced to some general principles, but particular commandments, instructions, admonitions, and promises can be dismissed as being off the mark. The idea of Divine Revelation also is diminished from a “Thus saith the Lord,” to “This reflected the best understanding of the time.”

This is what we are up against. And it is why we need to proclaim and teach Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. If the Son of God indeed became human, died and rose again, then it does not matter what age he spoke in. He speaks from infinite wisdom and knowledge. He speaks truth! He is the truth!

Since You Asked…

Why do we stand during the reading of the Gospel Lesson?

By standing we are giving expression of special respect and adoration. In the Gospel Accounts we meet our Lord Jesus Christ in a special way. In these writings we are presented with Jesus’ Judean and Galilean ministry. We also have a record of the very words of our Lord (his teachings, parables, dialog, etc.). We hear the accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the work of our salvation.

Although the entire Bible is the Word of God, it is in the Gospels that our Lord is most directly presented to us. So you might say that Christ himself is being presented before us in the Gospel Lesson. It is therefore most appropriate that we stand at attention.

Our Mission

One of the things that we will be discussing, reflecting upon, and promoting at the Annual Meeting is outreach. We know that the mission of our Lord is to redeem the world. We know this from the most familiar passage in the Bible, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).

The mission is not ours! It belongs to our Lord Jesus. And yet he has chosen his followers to participate in his mission. To his appointed leaders, the Apostles, he said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold I am with you always to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:19-20).

The Apostles were witnesses to Christ’s death and resurrection. They proclaimed his dying and rising and invited people to repent. Their claim was that Christ died to make the forgiveness of our sins possible. And they taught that Christ’s third day rising bodily from the grave proves that by his death he had conquered sin, death, and the devil. This victory he means to share with all who receive the gift of salvation by faith. In Christ we have the promise of the forgiveness of sins and the chance to walk in newness of life as we await sharing in a bodily resurrection like his.

This Apostolic message itself becomes the power for salvation (cf. Ro. 1:16). It is through this message, often simply called the Gospel, that the Holy Spirit enables people to have faith in Christ and the work he accomplished on our behalf.

To participate in this mission is to be enlivened in this Faith ourselves. It is to become so familiar with the Word of the Lord that we are able to faithfully share and teach it to others.

Since You Asked…

Do Lutherans Promote Private Confession?

“Confession has not been abolished by the preachers on our side. … The people are carefully instructed concerning the consolation of the Word of absolution (forgiveness) so that they may esteem it as a great and precious thing. It is not the voice of the man who speaks it, but it is the Word of God, who forgives sin, for it is spoken in God’s stead and by God’s command. …it is necessary for terrified consciences” (Augsburg Confession, XXV)

Confession has two parts: First that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the Pastor as from God himself.